Land of the free and home of the afraid

The police tape is gone and life is returning, as much as possible, to normal at Seven Corners Shopping Center in Falls Church, Virginia.

As normal as can be when a madman with a rifle can plunge a metropolitan area of three million plus people into a life of fear.

Orange cones close off the parking space where the Washington-area sniper’s bullet cut down his latest victim, 47-year-old Linda Franklin, an FBI analyst who went shopping with her husband at Home Depot Monday night just to buy some stuff for the new home they would be moving into this weekend. Flowers and other memorial tributes now occupy the space.

The killing, the ninth in 12 days, was the madman’s most brazen. Instead of hiding in wait behind a tree or concealed from view hundreds of yards away, he and an accomplice drove into the parking lot of Seven Corners. He got out of a cream-colored van, raised his assault rifle to his shoulder, fired a single shot that struck Franklin in the back of the head, and then climbed back into the van, which left the center and headed East on U.S. Route 50.

Ever since 9-11, living in and around Washington has carried a certain level of danger. When fanatics crash planes into buildings and the Department of Defense rings the city with uranium detectors to try and stop someone from smuggling in a bomb, you learn to live with the realization that each day could be your last.

But this psycho and his rifle raised the stakes. It’s one thing to work in the Pentagon, the White House or on the Hill and accept the threats of hijacked airplanes, deranged bombers and anthrax-laced envelopes, but the simple task of filling the gas tank on your SUV should not require a flak jacket and hazardous duty pay.

Stopped for gas at our favorite service station on Lee Highway. The attendant said we were the first customers in more than an hour. Normally, there’s a line to get into the station, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays when gas is five cents cheaper. Not this past Tuesday.

At a coffee shop on Columbia Pike in Arlington, no customers sat outside or near the windows. They all huddled towards the center of the shop. At the many restaurants that line Clarendon Boulevard, one customer sat outside. The hostess at one restaurant said no one requested a window seat.

At the McPherson Square, a number of Metro police ran into the station just as I was getting off an Orange Line train. One came up to me: “Did you see a guy in a hunting jacket carrying a gun case? We got a report there was one who got off at this station.” I hadn’t and said so. As I left the station, the guy behind me on the escalator laughed and said: “I bet you were the one they were looking for.” I was wearing a photographer’s jacket, which has many pockets and looks like a hunting jacket and I was carrying my video camera in a long, narrow case that some might think looks like a gun case.

High school football games have been cancelled until further notice. Schools won’t let students out of the building during the day and buses load under police protection.

“This is a higher level than fear than we saw after 9-11,” one cop told me this week.

Friends and family we haven’t heard from in months have called to see if we were all right. We’re leaving Washington shortly on business that will keep us both out of the area until after the election and the response is always “thank God. You won’t be in harm’s way.”

Actually, we will be more in harm’s way just leaving town. The odds of getting killed by the Washington sniper on any given day is less than one in three million. In the past two weeks, nine people have died from the gun of the sniper. During that same period, 11 people in the area have died in traffic accidents. Another seven accidental deaths occurred at home or at work.

There is, of course, a big difference between dying on the highway or by slipping in the bathtub. In a car wreck, you might die because you, or someone else, made a mistake. At home or at work, you might die because an unforeseen set of circumstances led to a situation beyond yours, or anyone else’s control.

But dying simply because some nutcase with a gun sets his sights on you and decides you should die is something beyond the grand scheme of things.

Which is why this one man and his rifle can do what bin Laden and his legions could not – bring a region to its knees.